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In the Mountains of Yunnan

Living in Kunming has its benefits:-great food; friendly people; helpful colleagues; and stimulating work. But for a city of its size, there is precious little public open space and I have yet to discover any place where one can walk on dirt or grass more than a few meters at a stretch. After two months in town, it was time to get out into the mountains. I had been finalizing a paper on Yunnan’s experiment with national parks; what better idea than to visit one of these areas for a hike? But my Tibetan guide Tsebho—who lives in Xiangrila near Pudacuo National Park—had a better idea: “Let’s walk all the way across all of Yunnan’s three parallel rivers to the Nujiang.  If we can do it, it should take about 12 days.” “Why not?” I replied. This trip would be the ultimate antidote to urban life in Kunming; in fact, we didn’t even know if the route was possible. We did know that few if any foreigners had attempted it. Aside from a challenging itinerary to cross three great rivers and the 15,000 foot ranges that separate them, the route could yield important information about habitat quality and potential for biological connectivity between Baima Xueshan National Nature Reserve and large chunks of roadless country to the south. Baima was scheduled to become a national park by 2015. The rationale for turning nature reserves into national parks was that, unlike current policies that restrict visitor access in the name of conservation, (limited) tourism development could support environmental protection; people would be welcome in the new parks. Climbing over the Shaka range west of Xiangrila, was relatively easy. We hiked up a narrow defile below soaring metamorphic rock cliffs following local herder trails till we topped out in yak pastureland. The herders had already descended to the valley for the winter and all their huts were abandoned. We pressed on into higher pasture, then subalpine scrub and meadow to camp at 13,000 feet. The morning broke cool and clear. We ascended higher into a series of alpine basins, finally cresting a 13,600 foot pass. A steep descent into lichen-covered old growth fir forest—the Pacific Northwest in Yunnan—we encountered no one. Hours later, hobbled by 3,000 feet of sharp downhill in less than 2.5 miles bearing heavy packs, we camped on an old logging road, the only flat place we could find. “We’re over the first mountains and into the Jinsha,” Tsebho announced, “but it’ll take all tomorrow to reach the river. We’ll have to hop a local bus 45 miles to the village at the end of the road and hire horses to carry our packs over Baima. Then all we have to do is get up over the next range to the Nujiang.” But we never made it. At the Jinsha, at the close of our third day, the rains came down, the temperature dropped, and so we holed up in a ramshackle unheated guesthouse ($4/night) at roads end, waiting for the weather to break. We sat for two days; the rain only let up for a few hours. Then, we had another problem. The village boss refused to let us proceed since we didn’t have an official permit to enter Baima. Tsebho argued that we would stay south of the reserve but the official remained unconvinced. Then company arrived at the guesthouse.  A Chinese hiking club from the mega-city Shenzhen staggered into town. With little experience, but having read on the Internet about a Chinese group doing our route in reverse in 2006, they had already crossed over two of the three ranges. But they were beat. In fact, given the poor weather, they decided to call it quits an hour after meeting us. The presence of the Chinese hikers solved our permit problem. How could the village boss say “no” to us if another group without a permit had just accomplished what we wanted to do? Chinese conservation policies are strict on paper but enforcement on the ground is often circumstantial. Neither the hikers nor the village boss, however, controlled the weather. On the sixth morning, it was still pouring and probably snowing in the high country. So we, too, decided to terminate our hike and retreat back to Xiangrila. I learned three lessons from this trip. First, caution is always warranted when dealing with high mountains and difficult trails. It has rained nine of the last ten days since we returned. Second, never underestimate determined Chinese hikers; given their lack of experience, they were lucky they travelled safely as far as they did. And third, travel in China’s nature reserves can be a crap shoot, and visitor regulations are in need of reform. Yunnan’s new national park rules may do just that.